Dr. Glover, Mr. Gambino: A Confessional Rapper’s Struggle with Racial Identity


I caught wind of Childish Gambino before ever hearing mention of this Donald McKinley Glover fellow.  Most people know Glover from his portrayal of Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, or perhaps from his work as a stand-up comedian. Me?  I didn’t hear of him until he stepped into the rap scene.  I’m not a big fan of television shows, but when someone starts spitting similes over sped up Adele, they really know how to perk my ears.  As if Adele was chanting the perfect caveat in the second chorus of “Rolling in the Deep”: “You’re gonna wish you/never had met me…”  before this corny monster calling himself Childish Gambino jumps in to rap one verse before the song is nearly over.   Punch lines like “‘I’m saying that my life’s swell: cortisone,” matched with painfully honest bitterness: “Wow, girl, that’s what you really wanted, huh?/A Michael Cera knockoff, I guess I wasn’t white enough.”  

Yes, Childish Gambino, I kind of wish we had never met. But what initially felt corny and insincere has evolved into a compelling, complex character in hip-hop; Gambino has a lot to say about racial performance and black identity, even if we have to swim through corny punch lines to find said message.  Rapping seemed like a hobby for Glover at first.  But now, Glover has moved from actor-who-occasionally-raps to the next rapper-who-abandoned-acting, as if he needed anything else to draw comparisons to Drake.  He has taken a reduced role in Community, and is set to release his second studio album Because the Internet on December 10th

Donald Glover never really quit acting, though.  His alias, derived from a computer engine that generates Wu-Tang-esque titles from real names, was only the beginning of Glover’s rapping persona.  Childish Gambino is a corny, sensitive, aggressive misogynist, who makes you question when he’s being sincere, when he’s actually pissed off, when he’s pulling your leg, and if he really ever walks around the club surrounded by Asian models.  He’s mastered this jeckle and hyde see-saw character who often reflects on his own authenticity as a rapper, role model, and black man.

Gambino’s first LP, 2011’s Camp, was best known for “Bonfire,” an appropriately named single that strings together clever tangential similes that tells the hackneyed rapper tale of being rich, popular, disrespected, and surrounded by naked women:

Move white girls like there’s coke up my asscrack

Move black girls cause, man, fuck it, I’ll do either

I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA

From the single and what I’d heard prior to Camp, I was convinced he was a wittier, more privileged version of Lil Wayne.  Albeit entertaining, this side of Gambino was a mere snippet of his persona’s complexity.  Several of his tracks on Camp portray compelling confessions from a rapper who has suffered through childhood bullying and relationship troubles, all stemming from issues with his racial identity.

On “Backpackers,” Gambino rants about his lack of “street cred” because he’s often considered “that well spoken token,” the nerdy black guy who is too nerdy to align with mainstream America’s image of the black rapper:

Nerdy ass black kid, whatever man I’m sick of him

That well spoken token, who ain’t been heard

The only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word

I buy a bunch of ’em and put it on my black card

Now I got some street cred, use it ’til it’s maxed out

He’s “the only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word,” passing as a white man but still grasping to his black roots to brag that he can, in fact, say “the N-word” without offending anyone.  The black card pun is equally gripping, conceptualizing the literal purchase of black identity, or “street cred,” through using the word nigger.   

On “Hold You Down,” Gambino dives further into his personal issues with racial identity.  At the end of the first verse, he raps:

But niggas got me feelin’ I ain’t black enough to go to church

Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough

We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?

The black experience is Black and serious

Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us

White kids get to wear whatever hat they want

When it comes to black kids one size fits all

The idea that many black youth suffer from both black and white oppression is troublingly real.  If a kid isn’t “black enough,” they’re forced out of the black community while still suffering through the inevitable struggles of racial profiling and white supremacy.  They can pass as neither white nor black, thus facing maltreatment from both sides.  White youth can pass as black as much as they please without ever facing the anguish of racism, but for black kids, “one size fits all.”

So before you criticize for Glover for being a misogynist, or inauthentic, or inconsistent, perhaps give some more thought to why he’s performing as such, and what that means about our societal ideas of what it means to be accepted by the white or black community.  The multiplicity of Gambino’s persona: his lyrical confessions, questionable sincerity, and braggadocios punch lines are all product of a man who felt the need to play these roles to gain acceptance. 

Perhaps we should consider Gambino a confessional poet of hip-hop.  When the bonfire goes out, when he stops playing the persona of the demonized black pimp, he has very gripping points to make on racial identity and the black experience. And when he does decide to perform as this iron jawed sex king, can we view that as a very telling performance of a black rapper?  As insincere as this corny demon sounds, it’s a very honest portrayal of how mainstream America views rappers. The money and women and outrageous behavior Gambino needs to brag about to gain authenticity in hip-hop, it’s all part of his struggle with racial identity.  Glover has passed between the lines of white and black for his whole life, and Childish Gambino is the main stage materialization of that duality. 

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